Dead Distillers: A History of the Upstarts and Outlaws Who Made American Spirits

Dead Distillers: A History of the Upstarts and Outlaws Who Made American Spirits

Dead Distillers: A History of the Upstarts and Outlaws Who Made American Spirits

Dead Distillers: A History of the Upstarts and Outlaws Who Made American Spirits


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Founders and award-winning distillers of Kings County Distillery Colin Spoelman and David Haskell follow up their successful Guide to Urban Moonshining with an extensive history of the figures who distilled American spirits.

The book presents 50 fascinating—and sometimes morbid—biographies from this historic trade’s bygone days, including farmers, scientists, oligarchs, criminals, and the occasional US president. Readers may be surprised to find the names George Washington, Henry Frick, or Andrew Mellon alongside the usual suspects long associated with booze—Jasper “Jack” Daniel, Jim Beam, and Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle. From the Whiskey Rebellion to Prohibition to the recent revival of craft spirits, the history of whiskey, moonshine, and other spirits remains an important part of Americana. Featuring historical photos, infographics, walking-tour maps, and noteworthy vintage newspaper clippings, it’s a rich visual and textual reference to a key piece of American history.

Dead Distillers is a spirited portrait of the unusual and storied origins of forgotten drunkenness.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781419720215
Publisher: ABRAMS
Publication date: 05/17/2016
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Colin Spoelman, a former rooftop moonshiner from Kentucky, and David Haskell, the great-grandson of a prohibition-era bootlegger from New York, founded Brooklyn’s Kings County Distillery in 2010 to make small-scale batches of moonshine, bourbon, and other whiskeys. Spoelman is a full-time distiller and writer; Haskell is deputy editor at New York magazine.

Read an Excerpt




CA. 1576–1622

Berkeley Plantation, Charles City, Virginia

George Thorpe sailed across the Atlantic Ocean on a supply ship to the Jamestown Colony in 1620. In England, he had been — by alternate accounts — a lawyer, physician, minister, and a gentleman, though his journey to America was an opportunity to make even more of himself in the colonies; to be a founder, and, as deputy governor, a leader. Somewhere in the belly of that ship was a small copper alembic still, suitable for making limited amounts of brandy or whiskey. While early settlers were often adventurers, they were also businessmen, and distilled spirits were gaining in popularity. They traveled well (brandy, it has been argued, was invented as a way to transport wine more efficiently), and concentrated the value of fermented products to many times their weight and volume.

Thorpe established residency at the Berkeley Hundred plantation, up the James River from Jamestown. He was charitable and industrious, hoping to learn from the native population as much as he expected to educate them in Christian teachings. He planted vineyards, though he did not live long enough to see them bear usable fruit. In the meantime, Thorpe tinkered with alternative fermentables. At one point, Thorpe wrote a cousin, "Wee have found a waie to make soe good drink of Indian corne I have divers times refused to drinke good stronge English beare and chose to drinke that."

Some early accounts of whiskey in the United States describe the spirit as "corn brandy." In context, Thorpe seems to be writing about corn beer — still popular as chicha in South and Central American countries — and not its distilled brother, which today is corn whiskey or aged bourbon. Still, the idea of distilling fruit, grain, and molasses were very much on the minds of colonists. Whether Thorpe ran his beverage through his still is not known, but it's plausible, if maybe unlikely, that Thorpe was America's first distiller. (The first record of a commercial still in the New World was twenty years later and 350 miles north, in New York City.)

Thorpe spoke well of the native population. In one incident, the Indians complained about English dogs, and Thorpe ordered them killed in front of their owners as a gesture of respect. He felt no need to flee when the Powhatan Confederacy began attacking settlements in a concerted effort in March of 1622. Thorpe was approached under a friendly pretext by unarmed assailants, and then killed with whatever farm implements were at hand, his body mutilated to send a bloody message to survivors. The Powhatan were known to scrape the brains from settlers' skulls with mussel shells, stuff their mouths with bread (as other settlers were starving), or flay the skin from their bodies before burning them alive. Corpses were tied to a tree or dragged around the property. A mostly peaceful people, the Powhatan employed infrequent violence to maximum effect.

When Thorpe's possessions were inventoried, the copper still was estimated to be worth three pounds of tobacco.




Interment unknown



1600– CA. 1663

New Haven, Connecticut, possibly

Willem Kieft came to Manhattan in 1638 as director general of the Dutch West India Company, following his predecessors Wouter van Twiller and Peter Minuit, who had famously purchased the island for a sum of sixty guilders — or twenty-four dollars, in 1855 — when the math was first calculated (today that would be maybe $650).

Kieft arrived at a time when the Dutch settlement was struggling financially and had just instituted a policy of free trade — a boon to citizens but a conundrum for his position, which required him to show profits to his superiors, who expected the company to produce revenue from tariffs and taxes. The town of New Amsterdam had about four hundred inhabitants in 1640 and was bounded neatly by the Hudson River, the East River, and a line of fortifications that gave Wall Street its first meaning. To the north, the island of Manhattan was mostly uninhabited farmland and woods, crosscut by Indian trails. The Dutch viewed their colonial settlements more as trading posts than social utopias, and as such, it attracted the outcasts from the New World's other beachheads who filled the young port with many languages and cultures. Liberal and industrious from the start, New Amsterdam aspired to a culture of an open mind.

Kieft himself was touchy and belligerent. The son of a wealthy and connected family (a cousin is depicted in Rembrandt's The Night Watch), he hoped to reverse earlier business failures in the new colony and build sustainable business, mostly in the form of plantations. David de Vries, a successful farm manager, offered to try to set up a permanent settlement on Staten Island, which he orchestrated in 1639. De Vries never lived on the island, but the following year he received reportsfrom his farmers that the Raritan Indians had made off with one of his pigs, a claim that he relayed to Kieft at dinner. This sparked concern. Kieft sent a raiding company of upward of one hundred soldiers to the Raritan village, killing some men who denied any involvement with the stolen hog. Not long after this incident, the Indians retaliated and burned de Vries's settlement to the ground, killing four settlers, not without clarifying that it was Kieft's own soldiers who had taken the hog while stopping to cut wood and find water on a trip to Philadelphia.

In rebuilding the settlement, Kieft installed a distillery and buckskin tannery near the same site. Cornelius Melyn arrived the next year, 1641. A hopeful businessman with experience in leatherwork, Melyn had been granted the right to develop Staten Island and take over the programs Kieft and de Vries had established. This included managing the distillery.

What was being distilled is a matter of speculation. We know the settlers grew peaches, which prompted another, more protracted skirmish with the Indians in 1655. So peach brandy is a possible product. Melyn wrote about the grapes he found in his 1650 tract Representation from New Netherland and Broad Advice:

The grapes comprise many varieties, some white, some blue, some very fleshy, and only fit to make raisins of, others, on the contrary, juicy; some are very large and others small. The juice is pleasant and as white in some as French or Rhenish wine, in others, it is a very deep red, like Tent, and in some paler. The vines run much on the trees, and are shaded by third leaves, so that the grapes ripen late and are a little sour, but when the people shall have more experience, as fine wines will undoubtedly be made here as in any other country.

Fruit, however, was more difficult to come by than grain, and most likely what was going into the still was beer. (Grain matures in a single season, and fruit trees and vineyards can take years to reach maturity.) Beer was so prevalent in the colony that Kieft created a law restricting beer purchases during church services or after nine in the evening, and there are reports of Kieft's predecessor encouraging the consumption of beer by example.

Assuming it was beer that Melyn fermented, his distillate would be what we would today call white whiskey. We do know that in 1644, after an exchange of liquor, the Lenape tribe attacked the settlement and burned the distillery and other buildings. Melyn was forced to flee to Manhattan, and the distillery project was abandoned.

Kieft began making enemies of the settlers as much as the Indians. (Limiting when and where people could drink didn't sit well, and his belligerence with the Indians worried many.) By 1647 he was recalled and replaced, and the leading figures of the community, including Melyn, were embroiled in a bitter dispute with the appointed leadership. By the time Peter Stuyvesant was appointed to replace Kieft, Melyn had been charged with treason and sentenced to death. In a strange twist of fate, Kieft and Melyn sailed back to the Netherlands on the same boat, hoping to clear their names, each in his own way. The ship sailed into the Bristol Channel, off the coast of Wales, and ran aground in a heavy storm that battered it to pieces. Kieft drowned; his papers were lost. Melyn miraculously made it ashore as one of the twenty-one souls who survived (107 were aboard).

Melyn petitioned for clemency and returned to New Netherland, but his dispute with Stuyvesant persisted. He eventually settled in New Haven, where it is assumed he died around 1663.





Prospect Hill Cemetery, York, Pennsylvania

Born in Albany, Philip Livingston ran a distillery in what is today Brooklyn Heights. Livingston was a Yale graduate and a Manhattan-based lawyer, merchant, and slave trader whose family controlled nearly 250 square miles of land before the Revolutionary War. He built a country house in Brooklyn around 1765 on a hill overlooking New York Harbor. His distillery was sited at the foot of the hill, on the waterfront, and it is speculated to have made gin or genever (a Dutch-style predecessor to gin that is slightly more flavorful). Ships from the West Indies docked here, and sugar was also refined on-site, suggesting instead that the distillery might have made rum, which would have been more consistent with the products of other distilleries of the era.

By 1755, a map of Manhattan depicts seven distilleries operating, but it seems that Livingston took advantage of Brooklyn's remove to create a larger operation, and this made him very wealthy. It also made him a target during the Revolutionary War.

After the fall of Brooklyn and New York in 1776, the British Army took command of Livingston's property. They used the distillery facilities to make beer flavored with juniper berries (a sort of gin-beer hybrid), and converted Livingston's large mansion into a wartime hospital. Those who did not survive were buried on the property, and Brooklyn Heights residents found bones in their gardens through the early 1800s.

Philip signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 but died shortly thereafter at a convening of the Continental Congress in York, Pennsylvania, as a result of "dropsy of the chest." He was survived by his cousin Robert, who negotiated the Louisiana Purchase for Thomas Jefferson, and his brother, William, who would sign the U.S. Constitution and serve as governor of New Jersey.





Mount Vernon Estate, Mount Vernon, Virginia

The fact that George Washington distilled whiskey is not his most significant contribution to American history, though many have used it to bolster both sides of the temperance debate over the centuries. The story begins, perhaps, with young George prowling around Western Pennsylvania in 1754, ostensibly to provoke the French at the fort at Pittsburgh and assert a claim to the territory for the British. Washington crossed a small river at a site that would eventually become one of the largest distilleries in the country, at Broad Ford (see Henry Clay Frick,this page). After a little skirmish near Fort Duquesne, the French stronghold in Pittsburgh, Washington retreated to what was later called Fort Necessity, essentially a circle of wood pickets in a meadow situated in a mountain pass, and the most defensible position from which to await supplies. Those supplies never came, and Washington's troops ran out of everything except whiskey. When the French arrived, they were eager for action, but Washington found himself outmatched (and his troops, having broken into the liquor stash, were not in the best condition to fight); he surrendered for the only time in his career. One would think Washington might have blamed the whiskey on his loss, but quite the opposite: Washington became increasingly convinced that whiskey was an imperative resource for a successful army.

After the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, with Boston and New York in British control, Washington found himself entrenched in a long struggle. Two years in, he wrote to William Buchanan, who was in charge of army supplies:

It is necessary, there should always be a Sufficient Quantity of Spirits with the Army, to furnish moderate supplies to the Troops. In many instances, such as when they are marching in hot or Cold weather, in Camp in Wet, on fatigue or in Working Parties, it is so essential, that it is not to be dispensed with. I should be happy if the exorbitant price, to which it has risen, could be reduced.

Washington also proposed the erection of public distilleries to keep the price of liquor steady, so that armies might not be reliant on imports. This idea never gained traction, though what a different country we might be living in if it had.

After the war, Washington and his fellow founders were left to figure out how to structure the country, pay for the services it would provide, and deal with Revolutionary War debts, which by 1790 were close to a million dollars. Washington's Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton had proposed an excise tax that infuriated distillers on the frontier. When Pennsylvania farmers turned a protest on the distiller's tax into an open rebellion (see John Neville and James McFarlane, this page), Washington found himself back in the neighborhood of Fort Necessity, though he only marched as far as Cumberland, Maryland, before handing over the army to Light-Horse Harry Lee (father of Confederate general Robert E.) and Alexander Hamilton.

After the rebellion subsided and with his presidency over in 1797, Washington returned to Mount Vernon and built there what was probably the largest distillery in Virginia. It's also the most well-documented of any distillery from the eighteenth century in America, and thus provides great insight into distilling technology at the time.

Washington's farm manager, James Anderson, was a Scottish immigrant who had experience distilling in his home country. In 1797, Anderson urged Washington to let him set up two small stills in the plantation's cooperage, and the six hundred gallons of whiskey he made that year convinced Washington to commit more seriously to the endeavor.

The new 2,250-square-foot distillery was laid out adjacent to the gristmill and eventually would have five copper stills making as much as eleven thousand gallons of whiskey a year (about the size, measured by output, of Kings County Distillery today, or about a third the size of Jack Daniel's first distillery). Washington was concerned about the location near the mill, which was some two miles from the Mount Vernon residence, since there were "idlers" who might rob the still, but given the water source, there was no better location. Washington also sought the advice of John Fitzgerald, a rum distiller in Alexandria, as to the potential profit of the enterprise. Fitzgerald advised him that as long as Anderson was up to the task, he should proceed.

Washington's whiskey was made with 60 percent rye, 35 percent corn, and 5 percent barley that was malted on-site. This makes Washington's rye whiskey not unlike most made in the United States today, though his was often sold unaged, or lightly aged. The commonwhiskey was twice distilled and cost about fifty cents a gallon, but more expensive versions were three- and four-times distilled and could cost twice as much. Anderson's son John lived near the distillery and did some of the distilling, though much of the work was carried out by slaves Hanson, Peter, Nat, Daniel, James, and Timothy. Washington's distillery also made a small amount of brandy from peaches, apples, and persimmons. Some whiskey was infused with cinnamon. Like many distilleries of the day, the spent grain was useful as feed for Washington's farm animals, especially pigs. The distillery supported 30 cows and 150 pigs that could, according to Polish visitor Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, "hardly drag their big bellies on the ground."


Excerpted from "Dead Distillers"
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Copyright © 2016 Colin Spoelman and David Haskell.
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